When I enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin in 2007, I was a sheltered native Austinite who liked to eat. Thinking back on that time, my memories now taste like the meals I shared with friends also on the cusp of adulthood.
But there will never be another pint from Dog & Duck Pub or another burger from Player’s. Gen Z won’t ever know what it was like to wander into an even-then-sketchy Dobie Mall and order pizza from a food court stall whose name you’d never remember. The Drag said goodbye to places like Slices & Ices and Mellow Mushroom. Gone are the ill-advised culinary concoctions of Big Bite — like a cheeseburger topped with mozzarella sticks — and the boozy Texas teas of recently departed Cain & Abel’s. You can’t cram for a final while sinking into an armchair at JP’s Java or ponder why La Tazza Fresca’s drip coffee tastes like Christmas. The windows of all-hours Ken’s Donuts are papered over. I say this with love: That one’s for the best.
It’s not like the slow evaporation of my late-teenage haunts left a caloric vacuum. For every Taco Cabana you lose, you get a P. Terry’s. There are holdouts: El Patio, CoCo’s Cafe, and Kerbey Lane Cafe, among others.
Yes, the UT dining scene is strewn with the invisible tombstones of restaurants that no longer exist. But one of my favorites, the wing-slinging Pluckers, hasn’t gone plucking anywhere.
Austin-born restaurant Pluckers has grown into a Texas poultry empire, but it’s an original Longhorn success story. Co-founders Dave Paul and Mark Greenberg came up with the concept as UT freshmen. During their senior year in 1995, they cooked 1,000 wings at their fraternity house and debuted them at a chili cook-off for the Silver Spurs service organization.
They opened the first Pluckers restaurant later that year at the corner of Rio Grande and 23rd streets. (It later moved half a block away to 22 1/2 Street without missing a day of service.) Paul tells Eater in an emailed statement that the founders wanted to provide students with something they felt was missing from their college experience: great late-night wings.
“Pluckers wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t from the support of UT students over the years,” Paul wrote. “Beyond experiencing Pluckers for four years at the campus location, our biggest fans evangelized our brands to their friends and families when they left college and moved to Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas.”
By the time I got to UT, Pluckers was already a decade-old staple. I’ve actually never cared about wings, which is surely connected to my complete apathy toward sports. But Pluckers has always seemed like a saucy social outlet as much as a wing stop.
My fraternity brothers and I formed a team for Pluckers’s weekly Wednesday trivia contests, and we typically cleaned up. At least one team member always had a subscription for the Pluckers Club rewards program, and it was a thrill to see what it might earn us for free, like fried Twinkies or some Holy Macaroni (tubes of deep-fried macaroni and cheese, natch).
After basketball games at the Erwin Center (I make exceptions for sports with giant hunks flying through the air), staff would hand out coupons to departing fans for a few free wings. I kept my wallet stuffed with those.
I quickly established a go-to order: a boneless wing basket, tossed in lemon-pepper sauce, with waffle fries and blue cheese dressing on the side. Yes, boneless wings are just chicken tenders, and no, I’ve never seen a problem with that.
Really, the Pluckers in West Campus was that most useful of restaurants: It became my regular spot. It’s where I drank frosty mugs of Dos Equis. It’s where I met new friends around the large corner booth. It’s where I sang Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” on the patio during a karaoke night, and where I learned that “Poker Face” is an awful karaoke song (too repetitive). The restaurant was such a staple in my routine that most of those trips started with the same question: “Should we Pluck?”
I visited the West Campus Pluckers for lunch on a weekday in June. It was the first time I’d been back to that location in years, and I wanted to see what had changed.
As it turns out, not much, if anything, had changed. The floors were a little slick, like I remembered. A display at the door advertised that same trivia night. Giant televisions played sports games I didn’t care about. A mural of the UT Tower and a cartoon Longhorn that bore witness to my disastrous karaoke performance still decorates the patio.
Even the seating seemed to be laid out roughly the same, including a big U-shaped booth in the corner where I used to gather with friends. When I sat down at a table, a red, plastic bone basket lined with a sheet of parchment paper greeted me. Just about the only difference that jumped out: A bottle of Sriracha ketchup now rests in the condiment caddy.
Like it was 2008 again, I ordered an unsweetened tea and an eight-piece lemon-pepper basket — with bone-in wings this time, just to say I got the real Pluckers experience. Blue cheese on the side, of course. “Good man,” the server said, approving my order.
Listen, when it comes to the food, Pluckers isn’t serving Jacques Pépin-quality dishes. But the zing of the lemon, the mild burn of the pepper, the chew of the fried skin, the juicy burst of the meat, the face-twisting tang of the dressing — it’s all still the same.
If there’s one thing an Austinite understands, it’s wanting something — anything — to stay the same once in a while. Before I knew how to hook ’em, there were restaurants that had shuttered long ago that the older UT Austin classes still mourn. And, one day, the new crop of businesses opening around campus will become wistful memories for today’s students. Look no further than the new Sign Bar, a monument to local nostalgia and a testament to yearning for the familiar.
Looking for immortality in a wing basket is a little silly, I know. And yet, as I futilely tried to wipe grease off my hands, building a monument to the paper towel industry in the red basket, the 2007 hit “Kids” by MGMT began playing over the speakers like an echo from the past. One lyric jumped out: “The memories fade, like looking through a fogged mirror.”
Not always. College lasts four years, but some tastes linger.